Throughout the summer and during training camp, one of the loudest NFL fanbases on social media and beyond came from the Miami area.

After three weeks of the NFL season, that fanbase has only gotten louder, and with good reason.

The Miami Dolphins are 3-0, one of the last two unbeaten teams in the NFL, and sit atop the AFC East despite all the offseason expectations set in place around the Buffalo Bills. Thanks to Miami’s 21-19 win over the Bills on Sunday, their fans firmly believe in a little Miami magic.

The reasons for the optimism in the offseason were numerous, however, they often came with a caveat. Miami hired Mike McDaniel at the start of the offseason, bringing in a new offensive-minded voice to lead their organization. They added Tyreek Hill via a trade, putting another explosive offensive weapon in McDaniel’s hands. The Dolphins also addressed the offensive line, bringing in Connor Williams and Terron Armstead to help shore up that unit.

The catch? The catch was what it often is in the NFL. What about the quarterback?

After two seasons in Miami, Tua Tagovailoa’s footing with the Dolphins seemed anything but secure. The organization was linked with every potential quarterback option during free agency and the offseason, most notably Deshaun Watson, and then at the end of the summer news broke that the team was being penalized for tampering with Tom Brady during the end of his run with the New England Patriots.

Yet none of the other options materialized, and the Dolphins began the season with Tua at the helm, and those around him began to build him up. Chief among them? Miami’s newest wide receiver, as Hill continually heaped praise on his new quarterback, calling him the “most accurate” passer in the league.

It made for great offseason debate, but now, perhaps Hill was on to something.

Because the “year three leap” that Dolphins fans were clamoring for this offseason, and pointing to as the reason they could be confident in Miami’s chances during the season, seems to be upon us. Through three games, Tagovailoa has completed 71.3% of his passes for 925 yards and 8 touchdowns, against just 2 interceptions. His Adjusted Yards per Attempt of 9.9 stands at the moment as the best mark of his career, as does his QBR of 82.8.

Tagovailoa’s Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 8.98 is second in the league through three weeks, behind only Lamar Jackson and his ANY/A of 8.99. Jalen Hurts (8.81), Patrick Mahomes (8.63) and Josh Allen (7.75) round out the top five in the league.

The leap seems to be here, and it starts with his mind.

While Tagovailoa and the Dolphins’ passing game found success last year, it largely came via schematic elements. As many theorized last season, such as Ben Solak in this wonderful piece for The Ringer, Tagovailoa and the Dolphins relied heavily on RPO concepts in the passing game. According to charting data from Sports Info Solutions, in 12 games last year Tagovailoa attempted 72 passes on RPO designs, which was third-most in the league. His 559 passing yards on RPO designs led the league.

On those RPO designs, Tagovailoa posted a total Expected Points Added of 9.12, working out to 0.13 EPA per RPO throw.

On his non-RPO throws last season?

He posted a total EPA of -17.50, according to SIS data. That works out to an EPA of -0.06 per non-RPO throw.

So the challenge facing McDaniel, Tagovailoa and the Dolphins this season was to get the quarterback to a place where he was breaking defenses down with his mind as well, and not just due to conceptual elements. Those clamoring for the year three leap wanted to see Tagovailoa working through progression reads, moving defenders with his eyes, and breaking down secondaries with his mind on a much more consistent basis. There were glimpses of those traits over his first two seasons, but if the Dolphins were going to live up to the hopes and dreams of their fans this season, Tagovailoa needed to show that ability on a down-to-down basis.

So far, he has.

We saw evidence of this in Week 1, as the Dolphins topped the New England Patriots at home. On this play from the second quarter — an RPO design — watch the quarterback’s eyes as he opens to the wheel route initially, influencing the safety towards the flat, before snapping his eyes inside to hit Hill on the slant:

Right before halftime, another slant from the Dolphins turned into a huge play. With Miami leading 9-0, they faced a 4th and 7 on the New England 42-yard line, with under a minute remaining in the first half. Again, watch Tagovailoa’s eyes before he makes this throw to Jaylen Waddle:

Tagovailoa opens to the left side of the field, which causes linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley to slide a few steps in that direction. The QB then snaps his eyes to the middle of the field to spot Waddle, and drills the slant route into his receiver. By opening to the left and moving Bentley a few steps, that opens up the throw lane for the slant route, giving Tagovailoa an easier throw.

From there, Waddle does the rest.

Miami’s comeback win over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 2 might have been the moment the Dolphins put the rest of the NFL on notice, and it too contained plays like these from Tagovailoa. On this connection with tight end Mike Gesicki in the first quarter, watch as Tagovailoa navigates underneath coverage again, this time the underneath “hole” defender in a Cover 1 coverage:

This is the kind of anticipatory, “throw the receiver open” kind of throw Dolphins fans were hoping to see from Tagovailoa this season. Rather than waiting for Gesicki to clear the linebacker, Tagovailoa lets this go before Gesicki gets into the secondary window. By throwing this early, Tagovailoa removes the safety as a threat, protecting his tight end in the process.

Later in the game, as the comeback was on, Tagovailoa hit the dig route on this Dagger concept, again with anticipation and timing:

Again, make note of his eyes. Tagovailoa executes a play-action fake and slides to his right, putting his eyes on the safety to that side of the field. That holds him in place for a moment, before Tagovailoa snaps his eyes and feet back to the left to target the dig route. That little bit of manipulation, combined with the timing and anticipation, gives Waddle a chance to turn the 21-yard throw into a 33-yard gain.

Sunday’s win over the Bills provided yet more examples of Tagovailoa executing with his eyes and his mind. In the second quarter, McDaniel called for a play-action design with Tagovailoa starting under center. He turns his back to the secondary to execute the run fake, and opens to the left side of the field:

As Tagovailoa comes out of the fake and picks up the dig route from Waddle, he sees the safety to that side of the field in position to drive on the route. Tagovailoa then resets his eyes and feet to the right, picking up Hill on a curl. He gets this throw out on-time and in-rhythm, before the playside safety can break on the ball.

A full-field, two-progression read working off play-action and starting with his back to the defense. I have often referred to the “decision making window” for a quarterback, and how that clock starts running once you break the huddle. But carrying out run fakes like Tagovailoa does here, turning your back to the secondary, impacts that window. For the QB to make this kind of read and throw after doing so is impressive.

So far, most of the examples have illustrated Tagovailoa solving problems in the secondary with his eyes, with timing, with his mind, and with anticipation. But on this touchdown to River Cracraft in the second quarter, he uses a different means of problem-solving.


Tagovailoa drills in this in-breaking route to Cracraft, putting the ball right between the eight and the five on his chest. The velocity Tagovailoa generate here beats the coverage, because if this throw arrives even a half-step later, the safety is going to make a play on either the ball, or the body.

Instead, the Dolphins have six more points.

In the fourth quarter, however, Tagovailoa and Miami faced a different kind of problem.

A 3rd and 22.

Even facing that situation, Tagovailoa was able to deliver, and it came down to how he used his eyes. Watch as he moves the safety to his left, towards a corner route from Hill, before throwing the post route:

Tagovailoa opens to the left, which combined with the threat of Hill gets the half-field safety in this Tampa 2 coverage to hold in place. Then, after hitting his drop depth and taking a hitch step in the pocket, Tagovailoa snaps his eyes to the middle of the field and Waddle’s post route, letting it fly. The manipulation and timing give Waddle a chance to split the safeties, and he pulls in a huge gain for the Dolphins.

They would score the go-ahead touchdown a few plays later.

What has this improved execution from the pocket added up to for Tagovailoa? Returning to the numbers, he has posted an EPA/play of 0.59 on his eight RPO passing attempts this year, according to SIS data. A big jump from last year, and still impressive.

On non-RPO designs? Tagovailoa has an EPA/play of 0.29. Still behind the RPO numbers, but a huge improvement from last season.

It has also added up to three wins to start the season for Miami, giving their fans belief that yes, the year three leap is here.


By nflbowl

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